Oct 16, 2020 18 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

Welcome to this week’s edition of the Surge, which we adamantly hope Twitter prevents you from sharing on its platform so we, too, have a grievance to whine about incessantly for the next three weeks.

Today, we turn to House races. As with the presidential and Senate contests, the outlook for Republicans is poor. The question as things stand is not whether Democrats will keep their House majority or how many seats they will lose. In a Biden +10 environment, where Democrats also hold a healthy lead on the generic congressional ballot, the question is: By how many seats will Democrats expand their stranglehold?

Joe Cunningham points with his right arm in the air.
Rep. Joe Cunningham. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. South Carolina’s 1st District

If Republicans can’t win here …

Any path for Republicans to gain seats in the House starts with them sweeping most of the low-hanging fruit: the seats that shocked you when Democrats picked them up in 2018. Freshman Rep. Joe Cunningham winning a South Carolina Lowcountry seat that had been previously held by strictly conservative Rep. Mark Sanford, who was knocked off in a Republican primary for having been politely critical of Donald Trump, was one of those shockers. But it’s not proving to be that competitive down the stretch. As Politico reported this week, a Democratic internal poll—and not one that Republicans strongly protest—had Cunningham leading his Republican opponent, Nancy Mace, by 13 percentage points. Some of that margin is situational to choices Mace has made, like her support for the old conservative idea of the “Fair Tax.” But the same trend that put these outer-limit seats in play for Democrats in 2018—college-educated whites and suburban women fleeing the Republican Party—have just accelerated over the last two years. Trump won South Carolina’s 1st District by 13 percentage points in 2016, but in a New York Times/Siena poll of South Carolina this week, he was only leading it by 3. The message from the top of the Republican ticket this cycle has been one that actively repels the same voters Republicans lost in 2018, and Republicans up and down the ticket are set to pay the price for it. Again.

Rank 2

2. New Jersey’s 7th District

The ugliest race.

In mid-September, the National Republican Congressional Committee released an attack ad against freshman New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski that claimed he “chose sex offenders over your family.” Whoa if true. What the ad refers to is Malinowski’s time as a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch in the mid-2000s, when HRW lobbied against elements of a 2006 bill creating a national sex offender registry that it found too sweeping. Malinowski, though, never handled domestic policy at HRW and strictly lobbied on foreign affairs. The ad, combined with the passage of a Malinowski resolution condemning QAnon, has made him a leading subject of dangerous QAnon theorizing. When Malinowski confronted NRCC chair Tom Emmer on the House floor over the death threats the ad had provoked, Emmer, according to the New York Times, “denied knowing what QAnon was and said that he was not responsible for what others did with the committee’s campaign material.” The charming spokespeople at the NRCC, meanwhile, said, “Congressman Malinowski must live with the consequences of his actions.” This gross race between Malinowski and Republican challenger Tom Kean Jr. is rated “lean Democratic” by the Cook Political Report.

Rank 3

3. Minnesota’s 7th District

Is this it for Collin Peterson?

Thirty-year Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson is by far the most incredible survivor in the House Democratic Caucus. He represents a sprawling, rural, mostly white district covering western Minnesota that’s already rated R+12 and is trending redder. Trump won it by 31 points in 2016 and will win it by a similar margin this year. How has Peterson survived this long? Well, he’s a conservative, pro-life, pro-gun, founding Blue Dog Democrat who voted against Trump’s impeachment. More importantly, he’s currently serving his second stint as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, a powerful post, and is referred to as the “godfather” of the sugar beet industry concentrated in his district. But even with all that, it’s going to be difficult for him to hold on. His well-funded, Trump-endorsed opponent, Michelle Fischbach, has been arguing that Peterson’s presence in Congress simply provides another vote for Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic majority, an argument that has the benefit of being true. The race is rated as a “toss-up.”


Rank 4

4. Nebraska’s 2nd District

Obamacare is the devil … oh … I mean, it is good!

GOP Rep. Don Bacon is one of the few Republicans from rapidly shifting suburban districts (in this case, the suburbs of Omaha) who escaped defeat in 2018. That was partially chalked up to the excess progressivism of his opponent, Kara Eastman—though progressives would blame establishment Democrats for not lifting a finger to help her. But Eastman is getting more institutional support in her second bid this cycle, and her opponent is a case study in how Republican messaging around the Affordable Care Act has changed. In 2017, Bacon described himself as a “hell yes” on Republican legislation to repeal Obamacare. He is now campaigning, however, as someone who “wants to improve [the] ACA.” He has even released an ad titled “Hell Yes” in which he recasts his words as Hell yes, I want to protect those with preexisting conditions. The race is listed as a “toss-up.” This district is also one of the two swing districts awarding single electoral votes in the presidential contest, and while Clinton lost it in 2016, Biden is favored to take it this cycle.

Rank 5

5. Oregon’s 4th District

If only Republicans could get a Terrorist-Stopping French-Train Man in every district.

On Thursday, Sabato’s Crystal Ball shifted ratings on eight congressional districts. Seven of those shifts were in Democrats’ favor. The one that wasn’t? Oregon’s 4th District, which was moved from “likely” to “lean Democratic.” Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, has been in Congress since 1987 and hasn’t faced a strong challenge in decades. But Republicans landed an excellent recruit in Alek Skarlatos, who helped stop a gunman on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015 as an off-duty soldier. (Skarlatos played himself in that Clint Eastwood movie about the train attack, which was poorly received.) The race is competitive enough to draw national resources toward the district, even as DeFazio is still favored to win. This rare, unanticipated bright spot for the House GOP is a lesson for how they can perform better in 2022: Find more candidates who have stopped terrorists on French trains.

Rank 6

6. Arizona’s 6th District

A Freedom Caucus member in trouble of his own making.

Rep. Dave Schweikert, a Freedom Caucus member, is one of the more conservative members of the House. That alone creates problems for him in this suburban district that, like much of the suburbs in Maricopa County, isn’t as blood-red as it once was. While Trump won the district by double digits in 2016, Martha McSally only carried it by 3 percentage points in the 2018 Senate race, when Schweikert himself only won 55 percent of the vote. But Schweikert has another, more personalized problem he’s facing: The House in July unanimously voted to reprimand him for 11 ethics violations over the years for which he was forced to pay a $50,000 fine, the first such ethics reprimand on the House floor since 2012. Even worse for Schweikert, his Democratic opponent, Hiral Tipirneni, is a freaking former emergency room doctor in the COVID election cycle. These are a lot of headwinds! The race is rated as a “toss-up.”

Rank 7

7. Virginia’s 7th District

Maybe this time voters will believe that the centrist CIA officer is a terrorist?

Republicans are trying to portray freshman Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA operations officer, as a mentor to terrorists. In 2002, Spanberger substituted as an English teacher at a Saudi-funded Islamic school in Northern Virginia while waiting to receive her security clearance for bigger and better things. Because a couple of students at the school matriculated into terrorism, the school was dubbed, in the insane post-9/11 political landscape, “Terror High.” So what was the implication here? That Spanberger, a CIA officer and postal inspector who’s gone on to be a national security centrist in Congress, also enjoys educating terrorists on how to best do terrorism? We question whether this attack works because we wrote about this EXACT SAME ATTACK IN 2018 when they ALSO RAN IT and it DIDN’T WORK and Spanberger WON. The seat is rated “lean Democratic.”